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3 Periods of Prehistoric Wales That Gave Us Mysterious Ruins

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By: Jaime Conrad
Posted in: Ancient Wales
3 Periods of Prehistoric Wales That Gave Us Mysterious Ruins

The era we refer to as “prehistoric Wales” comprises three periods: the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. What makes these ages prehistoric? They are the periods of human history that transpired before written records of events. For Wales, this is anything before 48 AD when the Romans invaded.

In terms of human occupation and settlement, prehistoric Wales covers the years from about 228,000 BC to 48 AD, when the Romans began their military campaign against the Welsh tribes. The timeline is based on the earliest human remains discovered in Wales, which date to 230,000 years ago—those found at Pontnewydd Cave just outside St. Asaph in North Wales. The period from 228,000 BC to 48 AD encompasses the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

However, because the last Ice Age left the climate inhospitable until about 12,000 years ago, it wasn’t until the Mesolithic Period (Middle Stone Age) that people began to settle in Wales more permanently. This early settlement period continued into the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and concluded with the end of the Bronze Age in 800 BC. So, the prehistoric human settlement timeline in Wales runs from approximately 10,000 to 800 BC. This time span within prehistory has given us some of Wales’ most intriguing and mysterious ruins.

Prehistoric Wales: The Earliest Beginnings

When does the story of prehistoric Wales begin? Well, that depends on how far back you’d like to go. The tale of the place we now know as Cymru begins before Great Britain was even an island. 450,000 years ago, the peninsula began to separate from the continent of Europe. Caught in the throes of its current Ice Age, the area that would become Great Britain was more like a tundra in Siberia than the green hills and fields we know today. The splitting away from the European land mass happened in two stages: 1) a separation by water and 2) a much later, complete separation of the land itself.

First, the chalk ridge between what is now Dover, England, and Calais, France, cracked when a lake flooded. This event breached what had been acting as a natural dam. As the Ice Age ended, the rising water completely filled the valley between the two areas. That was the point where Britain first lost its connection to the mainland. 

However, it wasn’t until much later, in 6,100 BC, that the British peninsula broke away from the continent completely. A violent tsunami struck—one of the largest tsunamis ever to occur on Earth. It turned the lowland areas into what is now the North Sea and the southern marshlands into the English Channel. Britain became an island. A small part of it would one day become Wales. 

A modest hunter-gatherer population of perhaps 5,000 called the island home. Although the tsunami no doubt took some lives, those who survived would leave behind artifacts and monuments to tell us stories of the prehistoric world they lived in. 

Stone Age Wales

Although Wales didn’t exist as an entity as we know it today, it’s been home to many people since the most primitive times. Neanderthals settled in Wales as much as 230,000 years ago. Archaeologists found stone tools and bones of this extinct hominid species at Pontnewydd Cave near St Asaph. You can view this intriguing find at  National Museum Wales

Our ancestors, Homo Sapiens, arrived much later, near 31,000 BC. Although early hominid remains have been found all over Europe, the earliest known human burial remains were discovered in Wales. Excavation of the site in the sea cave on the Gower Peninsula revealed what came to be known as the “Red Lady of Paviland.” “She” actually turned out to be a man. His bones had been dyed red, and his fellows ritualistically and formally buried him. Most surprising of all is that this occurred around 33,000 years ago!

Prehistoric Sites in Wales

Wales boasts some truly incredible monuments left to us by prehistoric people, such as stone circles, cairns (mounds of stones), and dolmens. A “dolmen” is a megalithic structure created when its builders place a large, flat stone on several upright stones. Dolmens were built in Britain starting in the   Neolithic Period , from about 4000 – 2500 BC. 

Prehistoric Sites: North Wales

On Ynys Môn (the island of Anglesey), you can find Barclodiad y Gawres burial chamber. Its name translates to “The Giantess’s Apronful.” This dolmen is one of the country’s most impressive examples of its type.

Another burial chamber not to miss while visiting Ynys Môn is Bryn Celli Ddu—“the mound in the dark grove.” This Neolithic tomb is one of Wales’ most famous prehistoric landmarks. It also harbors a fascinating secret. Once a year, the sunrise of the summer solstice shines shafts of light down the passage and illuminates the inner chamber. 

Bryn Cader Faner is a Bronze Age ring cairn that lies east of the small village of Talsarnau in Snowdonia National Park. Its name translates to “hill fort flag” in English, with the complete meaning being closer to “the hill of the throne with the flag.” The builders certainly positioned it to make a statement. Looming on the brow of a rise in the remote moorland, it bares its jagged teeth against the horizon as one approaches. This wonder of the prehistoric age consists of a mound of stones surrounded by 15 upright slate pillars. Initially, there may have been as many as 30 standing stones. This site most likely contained a grave beneath the cairn. However, there’s evidence that treasure hunters removed its contents in the 19th century. 

At the other end of the country, you’ll find another top-rated and mysterious attraction: Pentre Ifan. Pentre Ifan translates to “Ivan’s Village.” While Pentre Ifan was originally covered with earth to contain the stone burial chamber inside, you can now view it as a group of standing stones. The giant capstone (stone placed on top) appears insecurely balanced. However, it has remained there for 5,000 years!

This dolmen’s “bluestones” are the same material from which Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England is made. These bluestones get their name from their bluish color when freshly broken or wet. They’re composed of volcanic and igneous rocks. The most common types of bluestones are dolerite and rhyolite. Historians still don’t know how the   ancient people   did it. Yet, somehow, they transported the large stones from Preseli hills in what is now Pembrokeshire, Wales, and erected them on Salisbury Plain in southern England 140 miles away.

Mynydd Y Gelli, sometimes called the “Welsh Stonehenge” or “Rhondda Stonehenge,” is located in Gelli, Glamorgan. It gets its name from one of the mountains surrounding the Rhondda Valley. The burial site is a complex circle of stones about 30 feet in diameter. A low embankment surrounds it. Nearby are three cairns, one of which is in an unusual platform shape. A small standing stone, no longer upright, rests beside it.

Are you looking for a prehistoric Wales map broken down by region? This post on  Britain Express about ancient site locations  includes a map of ancient sites in Wales. 

Stone Age Animals

After the dinosaurs disappeared, a new type of beast dominated the landscape: giant mammals. Herbivores and carnivores alike were massive. At one time, these megafauna lived alongside humans. They eventually went extinct due to the changing climate and human hunting. Not only were they unable to adapt quickly enough to warmer environments and vegetation differences, but they also had to contend with a new apex predator that could throw spears.

Animals by Period 

Paleolithic : Prehistoric Wales’ animals of the Old Stone Age were massive compared to the wildlife you’ll find in the country today. Before 8,500 BC, the land was home to not only wooly mammoths but also to giant oxen (aurochs), giant deer, wooly rhinoceros, straight-tusked elephants, cave hyenas, saber-toothed cats, cave lions, and even hippos.

Mesolithic : From 8,500 to 4,000 BC, prehistoric forest started replacing the plains where these giant beasts thrived. During this period, smaller creatures like horses, boar, deer, and foxes began appearing in larger numbers. Meanwhile, the populations of larger animals of the Ice Age began to decline and die out. The native wild horses also go extinct during this period.

Neolithic:  As more people settled in farming communities from 4,000 – 2,400 BC, we find the remains of cattle, pigs, and sheep added to the timeline. 

Bronze Age:  From 2,200 to 700 BC, farming became even more popular, and livestock raising grew considerably. People still hunted deer, boar, ducks, and other water birds. Traders from Eurasia reintroduced horses to the British Isles. Along with cattle, settlers used horses for both transportation and food. 

For more  prehistoric Wales facts , Cadw, Wales’ historic environment service, has a wealth of information on the subject. 

It’s been almost 2,000 years since the period we know as prehistoric Wales drew to a close. However, this exciting age is hardly lost to us. The mysterious monuments of these ancient people still challenge historians as to their construction. They hold us captive with their otherworldly energy. And most importantly, they let us glimpse the idea that almost anything is possible. 

Ceri Shaw
04/21/24 11:45:13PM @ceri-shaw:

An excellent article as always. I have given you a tag at the bottom of your posts so that people can access them more easily. Sorry I was slow getting behind this post. My partner has set up an Art Studio in town and I have been co opted ro assist with setup and promo. I had forgotten what real work was like :) Anyway please keep them coming. We intend to ramp up the work on the site over the coming months.

Jaime Conrad
04/22/24 02:07:02AM @jaime-conrad:

Thank you so much, Ceri, and thanks for adding a tag! No worries at all. I definitely understand! That was kind of you to help him out. Setting up an art studio is no small task. I'll keep the articles coming! :D I've been uploading them as text only for the most part and removing the images, thinking they might slow down the site too much. However, if you think members would enjoy posts with images (and if they won't slow down the site too much), I can add them, but just keep them reasonably small. The original of this post has quite a few images of cool sites like Bryn Celli Ddu. Sounds great about ramping up the work on the site over the next few months! 

Ceri Shaw
04/22/24 02:41:33AM @ceri-shaw:

Hi Jaime...don't worry about adding images. IF they slow things down I can always reduce the file sizes a little. Alternatively we could add a Gallery? If you're not sure how to do that just send me the images and I will create it for you and add a link to the post. Here is an example post with a linked gallery, as you will see it takes most of the images off the page and adds them in such a way that they can be enjoyed without affecting page load times .


(The gallery link is just below the header graphic)

Jaime Conrad
04/22/24 02:52:07AM @jaime-conrad:

Oh, okay, perfect! I'll do that. Thank you!